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History of the Park

Park in Progress

The golden age of Mapungubwe is these days celebrated as a spectacular African history that unites South Africans in the process of ‘African Renaissance’. A museum in Pretoria is dedicated to the iron age civilization and Mapungubwe National Park was proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 2003. It took a century of discoveries and political negotiations to get this far.

When botanist Dr. Illtyd Pole Evans and politician/amateur botanist Jan Smuts initiated a Botanical Survey of the Union in 1918, the Limpopo valley consisted of farms of about 3000 hectares that had been sold on favourable terms by the state. Under the name Dongola Botanical Reserve 9 farms in the valley were set aside for the survey in 1922. Soon after the cattle ranching stopped, wildlife started returning to Dongola – named after the volcano shaped hill that overlooks the area.

In 1932 the student Jerry van Graan discovered the treasures of Mapungubwe. His father owned a farm in the Limpopo valley and while Jerry was hunting on a neighbouring farm he was given water in an unusual ceramic container by a man called Mowena. The student offered to buy it but the owner refused because the pot came from a ‘sacred hill’. Jerry then remembered the story of the mysterious Frenchman Francois Bernard Lotrie who around 1890 was said to have found and raided a treasure laden hill in the same area, taking gold, diamonds and emeralds

A few months later Jerry returned with his father and some friends and managed to get Mowena or his son to show them the hill. As soon as they reached the top of Mapungubwe they found many golden objects: bangles, beads, nails and a minitiature buffalo. Further away they found a rhino, a skeleton and gold anklets. In total they found about 2,2 kilograms of gold and many other clay and glass artifacts They never found the fabled clay pots with diamonds and emeralds that the Lotrie legend spoke of.

Jerry and his father had a hard time convincing the company not to melt the gold and sell it to make good money during these hard days of the Depression. Jerry mailed some artefacts to Leo Fouché, his old history teacher at the University of Pretoria. Fouché made sure the Van Graans and neighbours were paid out for the gold objects they had found. With help from his friend Jan Smuts, who was opposition leader in those days, he made sure the farm Greefswald was bought – including Mapungubwe Hill. Smuts visited the hill in 1933, the same year that the findings were made public and Fouché started excavations.

The concept of a Southern African iron age did not exist those days and Fouché concluded the Mapungubwe civilization must have been fairly recent. Fouché resigned from the University of Pretoria because he was regarded as being too ‘liberal’ and ‘anti-Afrikaans’. Excavations continued until the outbreak of the Second World War but the research those days was mainly aimed at typifying artifacts and sequences. There was little interest in the African people that were responsible for those artifacts.

In the early 1940s the government took over the farm Greefswald from the university and added it to the Dongola reserve. Pole Evans lobbied to have the reserve proclaimed as a national park and he found support from Smuts – who became prime minister again in 1939 – and his minister of Lands, Andrew Conroy. They were even considering a scheme that included land of Rhodesia and Bechuanaland – strikingly similar to the current transfrontier plans in the area.

The trio propagated a large Dongola Wild Life Sanctuary of 240.000 hecatares but received stiff opposition from Afrikaners – including the National Parks Board, after the scheme was announced in 1944. The heated public and political discussion that followed was known as the Battle of Dongola. It led to one of the longest debates in the history of South African parliament and the fattest Select Committee Report ever. Eventually the sanctuary was proclaimed in 1947 because Smuts governing majority voted in favor of the plan. The area then only comprised 92.000 hectares – still four times larger than the current Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site.

A year later the Dongola National Park was a major election issue. The National Party under Dr. D.F. Malan won the elections and in 1949 the sanctuary was abolished as the Afrikaans voters had been promised. Land was returned to its former owners and funding returned to donors. The Limpopo valley was farmland once again.

Radio-carbon dating made its appearance and after examination of old evidence and new excavations (from the 1950s) it became clear that the Mapungubwe finds testify of a rich lost iron age civilization that traded with faraway places. By 1967 there was a renewed lobby for park status, now also including the important archeological values which had become apparent. A far smaller provincial nature reserve consisting of three farms was proclaimed, and by 1986 renewed interest arose in investigating national status of the park as a larger area intended as a tourism hub.

Meanwhile in the 1970s and 1980s the country had been involved in border wars with neighbouring states that harboured freedom fighters, in those days regarded as terrorists by the apartheid government. The South African Defense Force built an electric fence along the Limpopo and the army base on Greefswald – near the conluence of Limpopo and Shashe rivers – became a place for ‘rehabilitating’ conscripted gays and drug offenders. Top figures in the army hunted the large game of the area and defaced local rock art shelters with graffiti.

Nevertheless, thanks to the army’s occupancy of Greefswald the sites of K2 and Mapungubwe Hill received more attention and were declared national monuments in the 1980s. In the beginning of the 1990s – during the demise of the apartheid rule – De Beers established the Venetia Diamond Mine in the area and bought farms on the Limpopo river. Control of the Greefswald and a few other farms were transfered from the Limpopo province to South African National Parks (SANParks) in 1995 and the area has been greatly enlarged since then.

Since the establishment of the Vembe/Dongola National Park (Vembe is the Venda word for Limpopo) De Beers signed management contracts with SANParks for some of its farms – they are now part of Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. SANParks hopes to buy or sign management contracts with more private farms in order to unite the current western and eastern sections of the park.